Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) may present initially in bone marrow, liver and spleen without any lymphadenopathy (referred to as BLS-type DLBCL), which is aggressive and frequently associated with hemophagocytic syndrome. Its tumorigenesis and molecular mechanisms warrant clarification. By gene microarray profiling with bioinformatics analysis, we found higher expression of the stem cell markers HOXA9 and NANOG, as well as BMP8B, CCR6 and S100A8 in BLS-type than conventional DLBCL. We further validated expression of these markers in a large cohort of DLBCL including BLS-type cases and found that expression of HOXA9 and NANOG correlated with inferior outcome and poor prognostic parameters. Functional studies with gene-overexpressed and gene-silenced DLBCL cell lines showed that expression of NANOG and HOXA9 promoted cell viability and inhibited apoptosis through suppression of G2 arrest in vitro and enhanced tumor formation and hepatosplenic infiltration in a tail-vein-injected mouse model. Additionally, HOXA9-transfected tumor cells showed significantly increased soft-agar clonogenic ability and tumor sphere formation. Interestingly, B cells with higher CCR6 expression revealed a higher chemotactic migration for CCL20. Taken together, our findings support the concept that tumor or precursor cells of BLS-type DLBCL are attracted by chemotaxis and home to the bone marrow, where the microenvironment promotes the expression of stem cell characteristics and aggressiveness of tumor cells.
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